Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. McGrady: I thank the Minister and hon. Members for their comments on the amendment. I shudder to think that there would be an extension of the problem that occurred during the last election, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Belfast, East, when some of my constituents queued for over an hour to vote. There were various remedies applied for who was eligible to vote and who was not. Sometimes, those in the building or within the grounds were allowed to vote after 10 pm, and those outside the grounds were not. There were a varied set of circumstances and we do not want to exacerbate problems for the voter or for staff of the electoral office.

The amendment's purpose was to create a deterrent for a would-be fraudulent vote claimer. It is important to remember that it is the representative of the political party who must make the challenge. I assumed that it would be an additional benefit to that person, who is not covered by any legal protection for wrongful arrest, which is the ultimate penalty for calling it wrong. People would be reluctant to fully challenge someone with being a wrong voter, as they could be subject to a charge of illegal arrest if the situation were to reach that point.

5.45 pm

I thought that a signature could also be requested, so that it could be checked after the election to see if an act of fraud had been perpetrated. I welcomed the Minister's comments about the paramount importance of photo-identity, and his reassurance that resources will be made available. However, I am concerned about what will happen in the period before the introduction of universal photo-identity, either by way of ID cards for electoral purposes, or other forms of acceptable photo-identity. For a considerable time in the future the medical card and the social benefit card will be employed.

Mr. Browne: I am reluctant to intervene, as the hon. Gentleman is clearly coming to the end of his speech, and I have sought to persuade him to conclude, but I cannot allow his representation of what is likely to happen in the future to remain on the record without correcting it. It is not the Government's intention to have an interregnum when non-photographic identification will be accepted. The legislation is intended to create the architecture wherein the non-photographic identification can be removed and replaced by a requirement for photographic identification, either photographic identification provided by the voter from documents that the Government are satisfied are secure—and the Committee will be told in detail about that in the future—or a secure electoral identification card that will be issued on a voluntary basis to those who do not have the other documents. The timetable for achieving that is not in the Bill, but the infrastructure is, and I will refer again to that matter at a later date. A situation will not arise in which the criticised documents remain as identity documents after the Bill is enacted.

The Chairman: Order. That was a lengthy intervention.

Mr. McGrady: I am grateful for that very long intervention, as it clarified a misunderstanding with regard, not to the wording of the Bill, but to the Government's intentions on the matter under discussion. Subsequent amendments can now be aborted due to what the Minister has just said, which has come as news to me because I understood that the ID card provision, allied to other photographic identification, would be issued to only certain categories of people after an application had been made and the electoral officer had deemed it appropriate to issue the card. If that is not the case, and, instead, we are going to have complete photo-identity at the polls, I can happily forget the rather complex set up that I was contemplating for my constituency. I will read and re-read what the Minister has said in this context, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Absent votes and declarations of identity

Mr. Browne: I beg to move amendment no. 45, in page 3, line 32, leave out `(ba)' and insert—

    `(ba) the application states the applicant's date of birth and the registration officer is satisfied that the date stated corresponds with the date supplied to the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland as the date of the applicant's birth pursuant to section 10(4A)(b), 10A(1A)(b) or 13A(2A)(b) of the principal Act,


The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 46, and amendment No. 12, in page 3, line 46, at end insert—

    `(3A) In section 6 (absent vote at elections for an indefinite period) and in section 7 (absent vote at a particular election), there is inserted at the end of paragraph (1)(c) the words—

    ``, which shall include the date of birth and the national insurance number of the applicant.''.'.

Government amendments Nos. 47 and 48.

Mr. Browne: Paragraph 2 currently has the effect that applications to vote by post or proxy for an indefinite period must be signed, and that the signature in the application must correspond to the signature provided to the chief electoral officer on registration.

Amendment No. 45 amends section 6(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1985, which specifies requirements when an elector applies for an absent vote at elections for an indefinite period. An application can be granted only if the chief electoral officer is satisfied, among other matters, that the date of birth on the application corresponds with the date of birth supplied by the elector with his registration application. The effect of the amendment would be that an application for a postal or proxy vote for an indefinite period would have to include an elector's signature and date of birth. Both would have to correspond with the signature and date of birth supplied by the elector with his registration application.

Amendment No. 46 would have the same function as amendment No. 45, but applies to applications to vote by post or proxy at a particular parliamentary election. It amends section 7(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1985. Thereafter, an application for a postal or proxy vote for an indefinite period or for a particular parliamentary election would have to include an elector's signature and date of birth, and both would have to correspond to the signature and date of birth supplied by the elector on registration.

Amendment No. 47 would amend rule 24 on postal ballot papers under the parliamentary elections rules in schedule 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. It provides for a postal ballot paper to include provision for the form to be signed and, in the case of an elector, the stating of his date of birth.

Mr. Blunt: I need clarification. The Minister said that the amendment would leave a duty on the chief electoral officer to check that the signature on the application corresponds to the signature supplied by the elector. I am not clear whether it would do that. The amendment would change the duty under the Bill to ensure that the chief electoral officer checks the date of birth, but his duty to check the signature would be removed from the Bill. If I have not understood the amendment correctly, I should be delighted to be corrected.

Mr. Browne: I assure the hon. Gentleman that he has misunderstood the amendment. The Bill already requires the checking of the signature and the amendment would add the provision under which the date of birth would be checked. I was encouraged to do that on Second Reading by certain contributors to the debate, a suggestion which at first I rejected. I was told that paragraph (ba) would become paragraph (bb). If it is of any assistance to the hon. Gentleman, that may explain why he thought that the provision would disappear.

Amendment No. 48 amends rule 45 of the parliamentary election rules in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. Its effect is that a postal ballot paper shall not be deemed to be duly returned unless the accompanying declaration of identity states the date of birth of the elector and the returning officer is satisfied that the date stated corresponds with the date supplied to the chief electoral officer on registration and on the elector's application for a postal vote.

The chief electoral officer will be able to check that both the date of birth and the signature on an elector's declaration of identity accompanying the postal ballot paper corresponds with the date and signature supplied by that elector on registration. I acknowledge again that the amendments are contrary to my position on Second Reading. However, I have reconsidered the matter and I now believe that the chief electoral officer should be given as much useful information as possible to enable him to check absent vote applications against the information that an elector will be required to provide on registration. Amendments Nos. 45 to 48 should further assist the chief electoral officer in detecting fraudulent absent vote applications.

Mr. Blunt: I am glad that the Government tabled their amendments at the same time as my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings and I tabled ours. Amendment No. 12 would go further than the Government amendments in requiring the national insurance number, but we have had that debate and I do not propose to cover the issue again. Therefore, given that the Government have met my amendment halfway by including the date of birth but not the national insurance number—much as I regret that last fact—I am content not to press the amendment and to support the Government amendment introducing the date of birth requirement.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the logic of his contribution to the debate and for his support for the Government amendments.

Mr. Peter Robinson: I seem to rise every 20 seconds. Every time I have stood up it has been to criticise the Minister, so I should not allow the occasion to pass by without welcoming the fact that the Minister has tabled the amendments. They are helpful.

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